Friday, March 21, 2014

Accept No Substitute: "What is the world’s scarcest material?"

Longtime readers know we are pretty optimistic about humanity's ingenuity when faced with material shortages, both from the commodity strategist's "high prices are the cure for high prices" point of view and the materials scientist "Let's see if we can build a better atom" angle.
Still, it is a useful exercise to run the what if scenarios.
From the BBC:
Should we worry about natural resources running out? As Rachel Nuwer discovers, that’s the wrong way of looking at a far more complex problem. 

Of all the world’s materials, which one will “run out” first? The more we consume as a society, the more we hear about how vital ores and minerals are dwindling, so it seems logical to assume that a few may be about to disappear.

Yet that may be entirely the wrong way of looking at the problem. According to natural resources experts, many of the materials we rely upon in modern life won’t “run out” at all. Unfortunately, the scenario they paint about what will happen instead in the near future is hardly rosy either.

Some of our most cherished devices – smartphones, computers and medical equipment, for instance – rely on a rich list of elemental ingredients. Mobile phones alone contain a whopping 60 to 64 elements. “Many of these metals are present in only minute amounts, a milligramme or less,” says Armin Reller, a chemist and the chair of resource strategy at Augsburg University in Germany. “But they are very important for the function of the device.”

This includes things like copper, aluminum and iron, but also less well-known materials, like the “rare earth elements”, what the Japanese refer to as “the seeds of technology”.
Tablets and smartphones rely on a class of materials called rare earth metals (Science Photo Library)
The latter class of materials has come under particular scrutiny because they’re a vital ingredient in smartphones, hybrid cars, wind turbines, computers and more. China – which produces around 90% of the world’s rare earth metals – claims that its mines might run dry in just 15-20 years. Likewise, if demand continues for indium, some say it will be gone in about 10 years; platinum in 15 years; and silver in 20 years. Looking farther into the future, other sources claim that things like aluminum might run dry in about 80 years.
Other studies indicate that rhodium, followed by gold, platinum and tellurium, are some of the rarest elements in terms of their percentage in the planet’s crust and their importance to society.

As startling as these figures sound, however, the complete loss of silver, platinum, aluminum or any other mineral resource will likely never come to pass, according to Thomas Graedel, director of the Center for Industrial Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. We have never completely run out of a natural resource, he says, and we almost certainly never will.

Supply and demand
Thinking in terms of “running out” is not the right way to approach this problem. For starters, it’s impossible to prove a negative. Scientists could never definitively say “The world has no more silver reserves” without checking every last subterranean nook and cranny on the planet. The more practical reason, however, is that by the time we reached the point that running out is even a consideration, the price tag for those last remnants would be prohibitively expensive, and manufacturers would not be able to turn a profit on any products made from them. They already would have moved on to a substitute resource – even an inferior one. “As supply and demand change, prices change and people adapt what they need and how they use it,” says Lawrence Meinert, program coordinator of the US Geological Survey’s Mineral Resources Program. “This means that you can never consume everything because the price gets so high you stop using it.”

In the 1980s, mining for cryolite – used in processing aluminum ore – stopped because remaining reserves were too small to justify the expense of mining. We simply moved on to using a synthetic substitute.

It’s not really possible to put a label on what the world’s rarest resource is, either. Instead of thinking in terms of how many tonnes of element X or mineral Y are left in the earth, Meinert says, rarity depends on how easy it is to get our hands on that resource, and also on the market’s demand for that commodity. Rarity, thus, becomes more a question of availability than of actual physical reserves, and that availability can be influenced by a variety of forces....MUCH MORE